A Key Question in the GOP Race: Where Will Ron Paul’s Supporters Go?

By Elizabeth Harrington | January 16, 2012 | 5:30 PM EST

Rep. Ron Paul poses for pictures with young supporters in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

(CNSNews.com) – Following Ron Paul’s top-three finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, the Republican presidential contest may now hinge less on his own campaign than on one key question: Which candidate, if any, will win the backing of the coveted young voters and independents making up the bulk of Paul’s supporters?

Most analysts agree that Paul cannot win the nomination, but where the Texas congressman’s supporters land has the potential to greatly impact the election.

While it may seem curious that a 76 year-old consistently captures the votes of young people, political analysts say his libertarian values and anti-war and anti-establishment messages makes him the ideal choice for that demographic.

“If you’re young you really are skeptical of all politicians,” said Scott Rasmussen, founder and president of Rasmussen Reports.  “[Paul] looks about as unlike a politician in his demeanor and tone as you can find.”

“Younger voters tend to support economic freedom, but they are liberal on social issues and dismissive of neoconservative positions on foreign policy,” argued Michael Wissot, senior strategist at Luntz Global. “It’s hardly a new phenomenon.”

“He’s the only Republican candidate – and actually in this election the only candidate in either party – who’s really calling for getting out of the wars, and that’s popular with young people,” said David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, a libertarian thinktank.

According to the New Hampshire primary exit polls, Paul won 46 percent of voters in the 18-29 age bracket and 31 percent of independents.  In Iowa, he won 50 percent of caucus-goers aged 17-24 and 43 percent of independents.

“Looking forward, the challenge for Republicans is going to be how do you reach out to those people, all Ron Paul supporters,” said Rasmussen.

“Especially the younger ones, because a majority of them right now say if Ron Paul is not the nominee they are either going to vote third party or for Barack Obama.”

‘Easily understood’

A man of apparent contradictions – a septuagenarian whose most passionate supporters are young enough to be his grandchildren, a celebrated anti-establishment candidate who has served in Congress for over 20 years – Paul’s consistent message of limited government and individual liberty finally seem to be resonating in his third presidential run.

After previous attempts in 1988 and 2008, Paul is receiving much more attention this year, according to Hunter Baker, associate professor of political science at Union University, because he is the “purest exponent” of free market Tea Party ideals, a faction not present in past presidential elections.

“The failure of a conclusive victory in the Middle East and uncertainty of what we have achieved draws adherents to his modest foreign policy,”  he said.

“Perhaps most important, the dissatisfaction with moderate Mitt Romney and the inability of any conservative to seize the party banner has left Ron Paul as a strong alternative choice in the minds of many – particularly in the minds of young people.”

In 2008, there was another candidate with strong support among the young – Sen. Barack Obama. While starkly different, both candidates have presented messages that attract young people.

“Ron Paul and libertarianism succeeds with young people for the same reason President Obama and democratic socialism have been popular,” Baker said. “They present clear visions of the good society.”

“Now, it is true that the visions of the good society are quite different, but they are clear and easily understood.”

Baker said Obama’s vision of “a parental state” to protect people from “the disruptive effects of capitalism” is equally straightforward as Paul’s one, regarding the ability to stand or fall on one’s own merits.

“When you get into the center of the spectrum and start mixing different degrees of freedom and collectivism into the sort of hash that dominates modern politics, the effect of trying to comprehend it is enervating and the credibility is not nearly so strong,” he said.

“Purity is the ally of activism, especially among the young.”

Four years ago, Obama won 60 percent of the 18-24 year-olds in New Hampshire, compared to Hillary Clinton’s 22 percent. This year Paul beat frontrunner Romney by 20 points in the 18-29 age bracket. Boaz says both Obama and Paul enhanced their appeal by going against the establishment.

“Obama was challenging the Clinton establishment, certainly challenging the Bush-McCain establishment that was in power then,” he said. “Obviously, Obama’s stature as the first black president, potentially, was attractive to young people as something different, something new.”

An audience member wears buttons in support of the Occupy movement and Ron Paul as the Republican presidential candidate campaigns in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

“But also Ron Paul is different,” Boaz continued. “He’s saying, everything we’ve been doing is wrong,” as he rails against the Fed, actions that exceed constitutional powers and an “interventionist” foreign policy.

After three years in office, however, the support Obama enjoyed from younger voters in 2008 may be waning. According to a recent Harvard Institute of Politics survey, 18-29 year-olds who say they will definitely vote in 2012 is down 11 points from the 2008 campaign.

The poll found 36 percent of the youngest voting bloc think Obama will not be re-elected, while 30 percent believe he will win a second term.

“Most young people went for Barack Obama the last time around,” said Rasmussen.  “Their enthusiasm level for Barack Obama is way down, but all of the Republican candidates struggle among younger adults.”

‘Stop dismissing Paul supporters’

The question for the eventual Republican nominee will be how to lure younger voters, and many analysts agree that can only be achieved with Paul’s support.

“It’s absolutely important,” said Boaz.  “This looks like it’s going to be a close election – it’s always difficult to defeat an incumbent.”

“Here you’ve got a candidate who is not only carrying young people but carrying independent voters,” he said. “So it’s important to figure out, if you’re a Republican strategist, how do we get those people to vote Republican?”

“If they can find a way to keep Ron Paul in the Republican Party, to get him to endorse the Republican nominee and to try to attract his voters, then they will be much better off.”

“Finding a way to reach out to them is important,” agreed Rasmussen. “I think an even more basic step is required.  There’s an awful lot of Republicans right now who are bad-mouthing Paul supporters – dismissing them. I don’t think that’s helpful at all. They need to acknowledge that these folks want change.”

Still, hold the calls just yet for a central role for Paul in the GOP Convention in Tampa, Fla. next August, said Luntz Global’s Wissot.

“Younger supporters of Dr. Paul are unlikely to back the Republican nominee in larger numbers,” he said. “Any talk about Dr. Paul deserving a major role at the convention is premature.”